Sobey Art Award 2021: Rajni Perera

Rajni Perera, Installation view, 2021 Sobey Art Award Exhibition, 8 October 2021 to 20 February 2022

Rajni Perera, Installation view, 2021 Sobey Art Award Exhibition, 8 October 2021 to 20 February 2022. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Rajni Perera Photo: NGC

I could use a few of Rajni Perera’s future-oriented talismans right now. Or some adornment – I mean armour – for protection from the inhospitable atmospherics one navigates on the daily as a woman of colour. A thaumaturgical little helper to spark the adaptive mutation needed to survive this earth-world, with its capitalist extractions, its climate catastrophes, its genocidal colonialisms. I am writing at the threshold of transformation right now: I am a curator of colour writing about an artist of colour who is shortlisted for the prestigious Sobey Art Award. To participate or not to participate? Or, rather, how now? Rajni’s work can act as a guide. Maybe even an oracle.

Like Rajni, I too conjure a triumphant off-world, where folks of colour are free to shape forms of belonging by means other than through assimilationist practices or by accommodating false universalizing forces to fit in – only she does it in the realm of lightning! Rajni’s world-making project pictures self-fashioning, self-sufficient change-maker protagonists, who are always already equipped with everything needed to thrive; here live a diasporic citizenry with ad/aptitude.  They value past experiences – adaptation, migration, hybridity, poverty and the like – and build on skills they possess, making abundance out of scarcity or protective gear out of what’s at hand. Rajni’s work offers a re-valuation of lived experience as a form of resiliency and survival. This process is her art practice, in fact.

Rajni Perera, Mask 3, 2019. 3M Mask, leather and brass

Rajni Perera, Mask 3, 2019. 3M Mask, leather and brass. Collection of the artist, courtesy Patel Brown Gallery. © Rajni Perera Photo: NGC

Drawing inspiration from across contexts and continents and space-time continuums – from black holes to Rajput miniatures, Manga to Mecha-Droids – her composite aesthetics (or cosmopolitan vernacular as I think of it, probably because I am a mixie), constitute new mythologies birthed from multiplicity. There are no hierarchies between high and low, science and science-fiction, pop-loric and folkloric forms and references. Rajni elevates sub-genres and sub-altern subjects alike. Similarly, there are no figure/ground binaries in her compositions or wearable creations. Bodies and landscapes are indecipherable, opaque: ready for the wake.

Let’s take a journey into the off-world of Rajni Perera, where trajectories and transformations operate along a continuum. Where ancient traditions are portals to see in all directions and across all time periods and world views simultaneously. Where artisanal techniques are aesthetic successors that adorn diasporic survivors.

A magnificent realm where third-culture citizens are glorious, and victorious.

Rajni Perera, Flood, 2020. Mixed media on marble paper

Rajni Perera, Flood, 2020. Mixed media on marble paper, 76.2 × 60.9 cm. © Rajni Perera. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Patel Brown

Code Switching: a Repetition with a Difference
“Stick it to a recognizable form,” says Rajni of her assemblages of old forms and new content. Taking up recognizable pictorial genres or narrative tropes to ordain new mythologies is precisely how Rajni set out on her world-making path. Her graduating series, The New Ethnography (2011), presents re-appropriated religious icons and super-flexible, deconstructed yogatinis painted in the miniature tradition, which established for the artist a new set of references that defied categorization by the Western art canon taught to her at school. Staging her figures through the lens of science fiction projected them into the future. Black and brown subjects populated her (off)worlding imagination. Neither representations of the past nor references to an immigrant homeland, these works were propositions – or rather premonitions – for the paradigmatic shift in Toronto’s visual culture as later defined by its poly-vocal and trans-cultural suburbs, for instance in North York and Scarborough, where Rajni grew up.

Switching subjects and iconic references required an interrogation of representation itself. For Rajni, the elevation of sci-fi countered an art world elitism that “prides itself on being exclusive”; it was an accessible and popular form of representation. The impulse toward the vernacular also meant appropriating existing pictorial forms long tethered to concepts of empire and class in South Asian art traditions, and dismantling their powers or at least decorating them differently: “sexualizing them, fucking with the system, making them psychological,” as Rajni puts it.

Her Embellished Photography Series (2014–18), makes this explicit. The series is both a nod to what Rajni calls a “proto-photoshop” sensibility and an embedded critique of Orientalism. In her genderfluid Maharanis and Maharajas, “neo-exoticism and its dynamics … play a part in both the criticism around representation of coloured bodies and the diasporic formation of identity in reclaiming … our stories on a victorious path to power.”. Instead of being mirrors that reflect past culture, these images are prisms that refract other possibilities: the constitution of new traditions not just the critique of existing ones.

Elevating the Codes: an Indexical Science
Rajni is attracted to astronomical phenomena – particle theory, quarks, wormholes, the interstellar medium and more – for its ability to conjure other worlds and provide her protagonists opportunities to space-time travel in search of other possibilities, other portals. Visualizations of the cosmos help us imagine a more expansive space of being.

In the hyper-dimensionality of these multiverse worlds, Rajni’s interest in soft bodies mutated. The miniature tradition blew apart. Large-scale murals of metaphysical bodies manifesting hybrid dance moves were morphological experiments; new geometries of spiritual and mental adaptation evolved. The eighteen-by-twenty-foot mural Three Figures features bodies with heads that are canonical projectiles and legs that are landscapes of flamingos. Geography and biography collide.

At this time, Rajni’s Mecha-Droid was birthed from IKEA drying racks in her first sculpture. What Rajni calls the “diasporic signifiers of the day-to-day,” these IKEA racks were once embarrassing reminders of growing up in immigrant suburbs with saris drying in the back yard. Now more than meets the eye, VHT1 is a robot in disguise, transforming these hitherto degraded assemblagesinto warriors.

Stick it to a recognizable form!

Rajni Perera, Traveller 6, 2019. Mixed media on paper

Rajni Perera, Traveller 6, 2019. Mixed media on paper, 243.84 × 101.60 cm. Collection of Global Affairs Canada. © Rajni Perera Photo:  Courtesy of the artist and Patel Brown

Switching the Codes: a Primordial Culture
Enter transcendent travellers and their gear.

The first traveller arrived in Rajni’s solo exhibition (m)OTHERWORLD CREATES AND DESTROYS ITSELF (2018), which also featured Vesak V3, a new moon festival-style lantern-cum-star-fighter-space-ship – perhaps this traveller’s preferred vessel. For Rajni, the spaceship is a seed. Seeds are speculative technologies, full of information in-formation, not unlike the ancient Mongolian paintings, which Rajni views as early science fiction propositions.

From here the Traveller series grew to include not only the mutant travellers, but also armour they might need, talismans they could use, and landscapes they will inhabit. Distressed landscapes – Flood and Journey/Drought (2021) – are characterized by a hand-made Methocel formula that allows Rajni to proliferate references – skin disease, geological formations, planet surfaces – and collapse them at the same time. The soft body has become liquid. The agentic travellers have morphologically transformed to embody the landscape. Rajni models these evolutionary adaptations into three-dimensional body-wear.

The travellers’ ancestral armour encapsulates deep time but also predicts a not-so-distant future, and in some cases, our right now. Rajni’s protection wear series emerged just before the Coronavirus Pandemic ravished our earth-world. But Rings for Truth and Flood Mask (2020), are also to be viewed as artifactual remains from the future. The travellers manifest non-linear time in their evolutionary journey.

What are the politics of the traveller’s world? Only Rajni’s expanding aesthetic can predict that future. For now, Rajni’s off-world is a reconsideration of colonial practice by folks who are the subject of its reckoning. And this has the potential to change everything.


The 2021 Sobey Art Award Exhibition, organized by the National Gallery of Canada and the Sobey Art Foundation, is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until 20 February 2022. The 2021 Sobey Art Award winner will be announced in November. This article first appeared in Sobey Art Award 2021, published by the National Gallery of Canada, 2021. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

Share this article: 

About the Author